Aleteia

How Edith Stein Made Me a Woman

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I was lurking in the shadows when along she came, gave me a good hard clout and shook me into life.

I realised something was wrong when I got into an argument with some friends about gender exclusive language.

I just couldn’t see how they didn’t understand that – particularly in the academic field – when it came to the use of language, women were second class citizens. This sparked off a rather heated discussion (them vs. me) about the oppression of women in general.

One of my friends quietly suggested that I read Edith Stein. I shook her off in contempt. “I wasn’t the one with the problem” I said to myself.

I ended up leaving, extremely hot behind the collar and them more than likely thinking that I was a hard-line feminist. Which I wasn’t, but it made me realise that I had a lot of anger towards men.

Furthermore, experiencing genuinely good men in my journey with the Emmanuel Community during that year – priests, fathers, brothers and sons – drew my attention to the sheer unmanliness of the men that I had experienced in my own life and to the painful damage it had caused. Recalling this just angered me further. 

“OK Houston” I said finally after cooling off, “I think we have a problem.”

This unpleasant interaction with my friends had made me understand that I was much more wounded than I could ever have realised. All the effort and trial I had undergone in trying to walk a way of healing in those recent years and I was all of a sudden plunged back into despair and pain. It felt like I was back to square one.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started to spiral back into darkness. 

In my desperation I took up the book my friend had recommended called ‘Woman’ which was the collected works on the nature of womanhood by Edith Stein (Converted Jew, Carmelite, Philosopher extraordinaire, Nazi gas chamber victim, Saint and all-round ROCK STAR.)

I got down on my knees. “OK Lord” I said “I’m here. I’m lost, I’m broken and I’m giving what little wretched self I have to you.” Then, not without a certain amount of trepidation, I took to the book in prayer.

I started to read; the more I read, the more my blood started to race… the words, those piercing words – they began to thunder through my mind, sending me into a whirl.

“Women naturally seek to embrace that which is living, personal and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish, advance growth is her natural maternal yearning.
 
“The maternal gift allows woman to take interest and empathise in areas far from her own interest.

“All women have natural vocation to be a wife and mother…”

The more I read the more I realised that I was not at all like the woman Edith was describing and that all of the typically male characteristics that she described, I obtained, and in abundance no less. I tended towards abstract thinking, I had a wilful independence to the point where I relied and trusted in no one but myself…

…and then SMACK!  A lightning bolt of Truth knocked me for six and ripped through my heart like a wrecking ball…

I wasn’t a woman.

I stopped dead in my tracks. It was a devastating and shattering revelation which resulted in my complete self-annihilation. I was not a woman. I was not who Christ intended me to be, I wasn’t living in adherence to my natural vocation, thus I wasn’t living in His truth, I wasn’t living within the body of Christ – and outside of Christ there is nothing, no life. I fell into non-being.

I had always been so sure of myself and thought I knew myself so well, but it turned out that I wasn’t who I thought I was at all. My whole life had been a sort of distortion of my true self and now I had to learn how to be a woman from scratch.

I sat paralysed at this revelation; then sobbed, for a long time.

I carried on reading.

Edith helped me realise that this was due both to my own sin as well as my life’s circumstances: both in my childhood and adulthood – despite my own mother being so wonderful – I had not been given the freedom, in my interaction with men not acting as true men, to learn what it meant to be a true woman, daughter of Mary.

In these circumstances I had developed the attributes of man as well as woman, in trying to fill that void in my life where there was no true man to be guide and protector. I was trying to be completely independent and look to no one but myself for my nourishment, as a result of not wanting to be hurt.

This coupled with my disdain of and anger towards men in general, led to my negative womanhood. Trying to live the harmonious existence of true man conjoined with true woman – by myself – which ultimately perverted and distorted my own true being, and set up a wall between me and the Lord.

Now although this revelation was extremely painful, it was at the same time incredibly beautiful, because I became aware for the first time of what it meant to be a woman; what a sublime, reverent and noble thing it was (even if I wasn’t one yet.) I saw for the first time what a beautiful being I could be if I made the effort to enter into the journey.

I saw Christ in a new way, with new eyes; eyes of the beginnings of a woman. It effected the most intimate and tender union with Him. It was like a veil was lifted before me and Him, and I made a little step closer towards His divine and most sacred heart. I felt his mercy in my anguish. His love embraced me as a small child and wrapped my broken little heart in His own.


*

Well, Edith, you certainly had your way with me!

But even though she helped to break me down, Edith also showed me the way forward: how to be built back up into a true life in Christ:

“In the New Covenant, the human being fulfils his share of the work of redemption through the closest personal union with Christ: through faith…hope…love…contemplation…Holy Eucharist…liturgy.

And so the long journey into womanhood began. But where to start?

There’s Something about Mary

Edith helped me understand that Mary, heaven’s own superstar, was my ultimate role model in life:

“Were we to present in contrast the image of the purely developed character of spouse and mother as it should be according to her natural vocation, we must gaze upon the Virgin Mary. In the centre of her life stands her son. She awaits His birth in blissful expectation; she watches over His childhood; near or far, indeed, wherever He wishes, she follows Him on His way; she holds the crucified body in her arms; she carries out the will of the departed. But not as her action does she do all this: she is in this the Handmaid of the Lord; she fulfils that to which God has called her. And that is why she does not consider the child as her own property: she has welcomed Him from God’s hand; she lays Him back into God’s hands…
 
“Should we consider the Mother of God as spouse, we find a quiet, limitless trust which in turn depends on limitless trust, silent obedience, and an obviously faithful communion in suffering. She does all this in surrender to the will of God who has bestowed her husband upon her as human protector and visible guide.”

So no matter what I ended up doing with my life, one thing was certain – I should keep Mary as my role model to restore my perverted, fallen feminine nature to its heights of the vocational ethos, and always be “a handmaid of the Lord everywhere…Were each woman an image of God, a spouse of Christ, an apostle of the divine heart, then each would fulfil her feminine vocation no matter what conditions she lived in and what worldly activity absorbed her life.”

But there was still one problem. I had the reality of my life to face. Nothing had changed practically speaking; I still didn’t have any man in my life to protect or guide me. I asked myself: “How can I find the balance of retaining my femininity in my day to day life?”

Edith had the answer again!

“Whoever seeks to consult with the Eucharistic God in all her concerns, whoever lets herself be purified by the sanctifying power coming from the sacrifice at the altar, offering herself to the Lord in this sacrifice, whoever receives the Lord in her soul’s innermost depth in Holy communion cannot but be drawn ever more deeply and powerfully into the flow of the Divine life, incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, her heart converted to the likeness of the divine heart.

“Therefore her soul is free to participate in the divine life as we entrust our troubles to the divine heart.”

It’s all about participation in His ultimate gift. In the sacrifice at the altar I am offering up my life in its fullness with all its sorrows and troubles and in return I am receiving the body of Christ, my concrete source of support, healing and life.

And there’s more! Edith says that:

“Participation in the divine life has a liberating power in itself; it lessens the weight of our earthly concerns and grants us a bit of eternity even in this finitude, a reflection of beatitude, a transformation into light. But the invitation to this transformation in God’s land is given to us by God Himself in the liturgy of the Church. Therefore the life of an authentic Catholic woman is also a liturgical life. Whoever prays together with the Church in spirit and in truth knows that her whole life must be formed by this life of prayer.
 
“The innermost formative principle of woman’s soul is the love which flows from the divine heart in a Eucharistic and liturgical life.”

So Edith’s ultimate answer to all my problems was: intimate union with Christ by living a Eucharistic and liturgical life, with Mary as my perfect example.

Whether I had a man in my life or not, I was to take Jesus as my beloved spouse; to seek his guidance, his comfort, his protection; through prayer, scripture, contemplation and most of all by receiving Him at the altar, offering myself in return.

This was the concrete way of living true femininity in the chaos of the world, in the practicality of everyday life. This was my way to becoming a woman in Christ.

The journey so far has been an arduous but beautiful one, each day surpassing the next, because each day I draw a little nearer to Him. I have also kept my gaze upon the genuinely good men around me, whether fathers, sons, husbands or priests, and kept them in my sight, as models of manhood.

One thing that I have come to realise in my own small pilgrimage of life is that the way of perfecting myself in my womanhood is not one that will ever end in this lifetime.  I will never reach full perfection because I’m not Mary. I am a sinful and limited being. But this in itself has a certain beauty, for I have the opportunity each day to choose to flourish a little more in my womanhood and thus enter into an ever-closer communion with Christ.

The way I see it (thanks to Edith) is that the journey to being a true woman is one big long train ride, Christ being the destination and Mary mother of God being the conductor.

All aboard, I say!
 
A special thanks to Edith, without whom I would be lost.

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